Going Deep – Magic the Gathering: Arena’s Economy

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Magic the Gathering Arena (MTGA) has finally released some information about its economy. An article dropped yesterday, followed by a Twitch stream. I am very interested in card game economies, as some will know from previous writing on the subject, so I wanted to write an article on  the announcement. What do we know so far? What is good? What is bad? How does this compare with things that previously exist? Let’s launch into it.

The Basics

I am pulling all information from the announcement put out on the MTGA website yesterday, but let’s just summarize what we know. Unfortunately I have no actual numbers, statistics or conversion rates for anything, so we will need to just leave that for now. This should not be a surprise to anyone. Companies tend not to like spelling out specific numerical probabilities, since that gives them less flexibility to change them later. If you have gone through this announcement carefully and understand what it says, you can probably skip to the next section.

  • Two Currencies. Gold is the “regular” currency that you get through playing the game. Gems are the “premium” currency which you pay for with money. This is a very similar system to basically every free-to-play game of the last 5 years, but at least MTGA didn’t try to come up with some fancy name for the currencies for no reason (I am looking at you Shadowverse).
  • Regular booster packs will give 8 cards (5 commons, 2 Uncommons and a Rare or Mythic).
  • Draft will use 14 card boosters (same as normal Magic, but with the basic land removed). For now the format is keep-what-you-draft (no “Phantom” drafts available).
  • You get cards for every game win up to your first 30 in a day. 30 is a lot, so unless you are a hard-core grinder you will rarely hit this limit. You can open up any type of cards that are available in the game, though one would assume >90% of the time you are going to open a Common or Uncommon. Although I didn’t hear this spelled out anywhere, I expect the game rewards to be both cards and Gold (they didn’t spend much time talking about Gold).
  • Daily Quests seem to be in the game. Looks very similar to the tried-and-true method that originated in Hearthstone (get one Quest a day, get one Quest re-roll a day, though it doesn’t indicate what the maximum number of quests is). Nothing special here.
  • It looks like there might be a separate system for weekly rewards giving you boosters. They are a little sparse on the details, but probably something like 2 wins in a week gives you a pack, 5th win gives a pack, 10th win, etc.
  • Wildcards and the Vault are the two ingredients in the MTGA economy that are new. I am going to break this off separately, but to just quickly summarize you can get Wildcards in booster in place of a normal card. Each Wildcard has a rarity associated with them, and you get to turn this into any card of the specified rarity. The Vault is the place that excess cards go once you reach a play set. The extra copies of cards go into the Vault, powering it up until you can open it and get rewards. It sounds like most rewards from the Vault will be Wildcards for the time being. It sounds like just opening packs will charge up the Vault as well.

Ok, let’s just about what we know so far. If we ignore the Wildcard/Vault stuff, this is actually not a totally crazy economic system. Daily Quests, opening packs, keep-what-you-draft limited, rewards for winning games all sound really familiar. Before moving onto an in-depth discussion of the Wildcards and the Vault I just want to emphasize that a big chunk of economy should be really straightforward if you have played other digital card games. There are a lot of important questions about how generous the play rewards and weekly rewards are, but those can easily be tuned to a level that is satisfying.

Wildcards

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So Wildcards are the first new feature to the MTGA economy. Every digital card game has to answer two questions related to collection management: how do I get the specific cards I want, and what do I do with the extra cards I don’t want. Wildcards are an answer to that first question. There are Wildcards of every rarity (Common/Uncommon/Rare/Mythic) and they can be converted to a card of your choice of that rarity. There appear to be a few ways to acquire Wildcards:

  1. Open them in boosters. In exchange for one of your Common cards you can get a Common Wildcard instead, which can be used to craft the Common of your choice. Same goes for Uncommons, as well as the Rare/Mythic slot. It is not surprising that WotC has not given out the odds of opening a Wildcard in a pack, but I expect the community will figure that out really fast (though the odds are likely to adjust over time). You cannot open them in draft boosters – more on that later.
  2. Normal play will reward you with Wildcards. There were some of the comments in both the stream and the article that suggested Wildcards might be part of the daily/weekly rewards. Once again we have no specifics, but I wouldn’t expect details at this point.
  3. The Vault. As of right now it sounds like the Vault will give out rewards exclusively in the form Wildcards, though it doesn’t sound like that is set in stone. I got a big long section on ton the Vault below, so I am going to leave this for now.

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I think the Wildcard system is interesting and offers some fun possibilities, but it also has some issues. Let’s talk through the positives and the negatives of this system.

Pros:

  • Wildcards lead to really sweet moments. Opening a Mythic Wildcard is going to feel awesome, and having emotional highs like this is a rewarding part of collectable card games. I have more “Cons” listed below than “Pros” for Wildcards, but this is a really big advantage, and it shouldn’t be undervalued.
  • The system is very intuitive. “What is this Wildcard thing?” “Well, it is a Rare Wildcard, which means it can become any Rare you want!” That is really simple. I expect players that have no exposure to crafting systems would find Wildcards more intuitive than Arcane Dust or Shiftstones. Once again, this is a pretty big advantage, and although those of us who “get” in-game economies will not notice this benefit as much, casual players will find it a lot less intimidating and “mathy”.

Cons:

  • Making “Draft packs” and “Booster packs” different things might have some weird implications on the economy. It sounds like MTGA will allow you to spend either Gold or Gems to either enter drafts or buy packs. The question becomes: which is better for building your collection? Well, if you are looking to open a specific card opening packs might be better since you can open Wildcards. If you are just looking to generally enhance your collection draft might be better depending on your skill level. You may think this is a small issue, but I talk to a lot of new Eternal players, and they are always really worried about spending their initial gold carefully. Players hate this kind of calculus. One way to avoid all of this is make draft rewards so generous that it is basically never right to just crack packs. Even then, the tension that Draft packs and Booster packs are not quite the same thing is weird, and some players will find this frustrating and confusing.
  • Aren’t players just going to develop a massive stack of Common Wildcards? I expect any player who plays regularly will get all the Commons they want within the first couple of days after a set is released without spending a single Wildcard in the process. As a result, Common and Uncommon Wildcards will just build up in your collection. In fact, at a certain point, players will just start turning their Common and Uncommon Wildcards into random cards they already have so that they can throw them into the Vault. That is not a particularly fun system, since players will need to just sit there crafting 40 Mind Rots just to turn around and chuck them into the Vault. That sounds unintuitive and annoying. Perhaps players should have the option to throw excess Wildcards into the Vault directly?
  • During both the stream and the article the developers stressed how MTGA’s crafting system is attempting to alleviate the feel bad moments where you need to destroy a marginal card for the purpose of getting a new card that you want. Buyer’s remorse is a real thing, and it is good to try and develop your in-game economy in such a way to limit this anxiety. That being said, I don’t really think the Wildcard system totally avoids this. Let’s say I save up a stockpile of Rare and Mythic Wildcards so that I have enough to build one of two possible decks. I choose deck A, but a counter deck suddenly become very popular. That sucks, and it sucks even more since I have no way of undoing that investment. Alternatively, I could spend my Mythic Wildcard on a Planeswalker I have been eyeing for a while, only to open the exact Planeswalker in the next pack after I spend the Wildcard. Though I agree that the Vault/Wildcard system has less “feel bad” moments than the traditional crafting systems, they have also not eliminated them entirely.
  • As I mentioned above I think Wildcards are probably more intuitive than the dusting/crafting system when you are talking to a brand new player, that isn’t quite the only thing we should consider. At this point I expect a sizable chunk of potential MTGA players have already played Hearthstone, Eternal, Shadowverse or something else that uses a system like dusting. “Hey, how does this crafting system work?” “The exact same as that other game that you played but with slightly different numbers.” “Oh yeah! That makes sense!” It is more important to focus on making systems that are intuitive to inexperienced players compared to experienced players, but it should be noted that breaking with a genre norm has its costs.

Overall I think Wildcards are quite neat, and offer a unique take on the crafting economy. The excitement of opening a Wildcard will be pretty snazzy. Still, Wildcards are not AMAZING. They have some flaws, some of which can be addressed, and some that can’t. Though this obviously depends on the specifics of the execution, there is nothing wrong with Wildcards.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Vault.

The Vault

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Up above I said that every collectable card game needs to answer two fundamental questions: how do I get the specific cards I want, and what do I do with the extra cards I don’t want. Wildcards answers the first question, and The Vault is an answer to the second. Over the course of play you charge the Vault until you can eventually open it and get some loot (it sounds like it will be largely Wildcards for now). There are two ways to power up the Vault that have been discussed, although there are other possibilities as well.

  1. Excess cards beyond a play set will go into the Vault. One would expect that Rares and Mythics will charge the Vault more than Commons and Uncommons for obviously reasons.
  2. It sounds like opening packs will give the Vault some juice as well. Whether it is regular Boosters, or Draft packs, the Vault will power up every time a pack is opened. This number will likely be different between Booster packs and Draft packs given the tension I spelled out under the cons of Wildcards.
  3. Though it isn’t spelled out, it is possible to make charging the Vault a reward for regular play as well. Winning a match might give you 2% Vault charge, and some quests could give 20-50% of a Vault charge. To be clear, they have not said they are going to do this anywhere, but it is possible.

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Instead of looking at the Pros/Cons of the Vault system first, I want focus on answering a specific question: how is the Vault not just a crappy dusting system? I have thought through this several times since the announcement, and I keep on getting into an internal dialogue like this:

“Ok, so I throw my extra Commons and Uncommons into the Vault, and it slowly charges up, until I can eventually open the Vault and get some Wildcards. But isn’t that basically the same as dusting your unwanted Commons/Uncommons and spending it on a Rare or Mythic of your choice? How is that different than dusting fundamentally?”

“Well, maybe the Vault gives you a range of possible outcomes! You get to roll the dice and hopefully get something awesome!”

“So… a crafting system where instead of just getting what you need you add RNG for… reasons?”

“Yeah that doesn’t sound great. Ummmm…. maybe you can charge the Vault to different levels to get different levels of loot!”

“Like when I save up Dust/Shiftstones to craft Rares or Mythics using a traditional crafting system (but possibly with RNG added for some reason)?”

“Oh, you are forgetting the fact that the Vault will just charge up when you open booster and when you draft! That is a nice benefit!”

“You mean like how Eternal gives you Shiftstone for opening packs? Wouldn’t it be possible for MTGA to just give out some of their “dust equivalent” through opening packs?”

“Ummmmm, yeah…… that is a good point I suppose…”

I have gone through this exact mental dialogue several times since I saw the announcements, and I still can’t figure out anything about the Vault that makes it better. Given this, I would basically describe the Vault in the following way: the Vault is the exact same as a normal crafting system except you cannot destroy unwanted cards you do not have 4 copies of, and the rewards might be randomized. Forget all the other bells, whistles, theory, and lingo, this is a normal crafting system like every other game but with less transparency and agency. What is the fundamental difference between throwing 100 Commons in the Vault and pulling out a Rare Wildcard versus dusting 100 Commons and then using that to craft a Rare? NOTHING! This is the most important aspect to realize about the Vault system: given what we know now, there is very little difference fundamentally between the Vault and Hearthstone’s crafting system, except with less agency and more randomness, and you are getting “dust” from slightly different places.

Knowing card game players, if there is one thing they hate it is agency and freedom, and if there is something they love it is unnecessary randomness. Just look at competitive Magic! Charms and modal spells are pretty unpopular, while those dice rolling and coin flipping cards are just all over the place. I expect this will go over very well as a result.

Edit: some beta players have assured me that the output from the Vault is NOT random. If that is the case, then the Vault is just a normal crafting system without randomness. The core point still stands of course: the Vault is not actually different from traditional crafting systems, which is my main critique.

With this framing in mind, we can now talk about the pros and cons of the Vault.

Pros:

  •  The stream emphasized the downside of traditional crafting systems: feel bad moments where you destroy a card to craft something that you want, only to regret this decision later. These moments are real, and it is nice to avoid them. As I mentioned above in the cons of the Wildcard system we shouldn’t pretend that this effect has been totally eliminated, but I admit they will certainly be mitigated.
  • Players will keep cards from older sets rather than just get rid of them. This means that when/if larger formats are introduced to MTGA players will have a larger starting collection to work with. It also means players will have a deeper collection to work with when building decks for events or special formats that encourage players to use off-meta cards.

Cons:

  • The new player experience could end up being pretty brutal. When you are just starting out, players often need to aggressively destroy higher rarity cards until they can put together their first competitive deck. If you cannot dust off-meta Rares and Mythics, it is going to be a lot harder to put together that first deck. As someone who has worked a good deal with newer players for Eternal, getting to that first competitive deck is really important. If you have just one top level competitive deck completed that means you have a fighting chance against literally anyone you encounter. Your opponent might be an experienced grinder with a full collection, but none of that matters when you go head-to-head, and that experience is very important for starting players to feel like they have a chance. MTGA can compensate for this by giving out a massive starting collection, but that won’t totally alleviate this problem.
  • Not only will it be harder for new players to get that first competitive deck, even deciding what deck to start with is going to be hard. If a new player comes to me in Eternal and asks what deck to build to start off with, I can quickly figure out their deck preferences and point them in the direction of an appropriate budget deck. In MTGA, things might not be that simple, as you will be a bit of a slave to your collection. I imagine new players will begin with a combination of “starter decks”, packs to open, and some number of Wildcards. Depending on the balance of these three, if the packs you open lead you the direction of playing Mono Red Aggro you might just need to play Mono Red Aggro, even if you would rather play Blue Black Control. For some players this could be a deal breaker. Once again, if new players get a thick stack of Wildcards to start off with this effect will be diminished, but this effect will never be totally absent.
  • Initial collection building might feel frustratingly slow. During your first few weeks of playing the game it will probably feel like you are not really building up your collection, since you are more like to get 1s and 2s of every Rare and Mythic before you get 4-ofs the ones you want. Not only will this be pronounced for new players, I think this cycle will repeat with every new set. You might be playing a ton, but the Vault is filling at a snail’s pace since you just have no 4-ofs the new set.
  • Deck switching is going to be more difficult than in other games. It is obviously bad practice to dust cards from one popular deck to build another popular deck, but it is sometimes done. This adds to the potential buyer’s remorse of using Wildcards on decks that end up not working out.

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  • Off-meta Rares and Mythics are going to be worth basically nothing. Take a card like Wolf of Devil’s Breach. This rotated out back in the Fall, and over the course of the year-and-a-half in Standard it saw 0 competitive play. As any experienced card gamer will tell you, not every piece of cardboard is meant of the big leagues. I have no problem with that, but imagining opening a Wolf of Devil’s Breach in a pack. Are you ever going to open 5 of this card? Probably not, meaning you will never get value off of it, and it will just rot in your collection. In fact, wouldn’t you prefer to just get a random Commons or Uncommon? At least those go into the Vault right? I mentioned above that opening a Mythic Wildcard is going to feel amazing, but the flip side of opening the third copy of unplayable Mythics and Rares is going suck.
  • Rotation has the potential to be truly brutal. It seems like there is no way to get value off cards that are rotating, and that has just never been true for any other game. In tabletop Magic players will sell rotating cards as much as 6 months before they rotate in order to get good value. Hearthstone has a rotation system in effect, and although you don’t get some dust bonus just because cards are rotating, at least you can dust them for regular price. MTGA will be the first game that I am aware of that both has rotation and has no mechanism for cashing in old cards to keep up with current standard.
  • This issue with rotation sounds like it will be particularly brutal for lapsed players. Imagine you play MTGA avidly for 6 months, but then your work gets busy or you have a kid, and you need to take a 6-month break from July until February. Over this time a rotation has happened, meaning all your old decks are probably toast, and 2 new sets have come out. How on earth are you going to catch up? As I mentioned above, new players will probably be helped to get up to speed by just getting tons of cards to start, but if you are a returning player you don’t get any of these benefits. I expect in this case the returning player will look at the game for half an hour, get frustrated, put it down, and never come back.
  • I want to address the “special events” argument directly. During the stream the devs talked about how special events would help players use some of the underutilized cards, which helps limit the “feel bad” of opening jank Rares and Mythics. I play a lot of Eternal, and we have a good number of events, many with some pretty wild rules. I take these fairly seriously since I write primer guide for each one, so I might be one of the people on the planet who has thought the most about events for card games. One of the secrets to these events is that you are not starting from scratch. It is not like the fundamental rules of card games are totally re-written. Some good cards become great, and some great card become merely good, but rarely do you see bad cards suddenly becoming rock stars. You certainly expand what is playable in the card pool when you include these events, but it isn’t like anything can be playable. In fact, even if some card does make it into an event, it isn’t like you feel satisfied. Let’s go back to our Wolf of Devil’s Breach example. Let’s say we had an event where the special rule is “Wolf creatures get +2/+2 and unplayable Red Mythics cost 1 less to cast”. Wolf of Devil’s Breach is now a 4-mana 7/7, which sounds so good I can’t imagine any company ever releasing a card like that. Wolfy here gets to be the king of the world for exactly 1 weekend, and although that is nice for him, I still think I would rather the freedom to just turn him into dust. Standard is the “real” game, and events should be treated as a separate “side-events” or “mini-games” essentially, so when I open some 7+ cost do-nothing Mythic, I am not saying “Oh sweet, maybe one day there will be the perfect event for this specific card to shine!” Instead I am going to say “Well, this is unplayable in the format that actually matters. That sucks.” In addition, there is no universe where every jank Rare and Mythic gets a chance to shine. It is just not possible. There is still always going to be a large number of Rares and Mythics that see absolutely no competitive play in any context. I understand that not every card is supposed to be for everyone, but why force players to keep cards they don’t want?

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As you can clearly see, I am not a fan of the Vault. It feels like a crappy crafting system no matter how I look at it. Even workarounds like having incredibly generous starting collections or play rewards are just trying to compensate for the fact that the mechanics of the economy are just a crappy crafting system. I don’t really understand what problem WotC is trying to solve, or how this system solves it. Even the explanations from the devs don’t really make sense to me at a certain point. If they are just trying to be different for the sake of being different that is fine I guess, but you seem like you have a chance to really nail new players and causal players with a system like this.

Moving Forward

I look forward to working on the actual numbers of MTGA’s economy. Specifics like the drop rates of Wildcards, how much do you actually get from the Vault are really important to the success of the system, but I worry that the core of the system kind of stinks. Not allowing players to disenchant unwanted Rares and Mythics is really not acceptable in my opinion, and the explanation they gave as to why this wasn’t possible is pretty weak-sauce. If the developers wanted to eliminate buyer’s remorse moments there are actually a number of possible solutions. Maybe you get “trial periods” for cards made with Wildcards so you can test it in casual queues before committing to the card. Another possibility is the make it impossible to open cards where a play set recently completed. These would all limit different parts of the “feel bad” moments of other digital card games, but the only solution that was implemented happened to be the one that makes building competitive decks harder rather than easier.

At the end of the day I don’t feel like the Vault solves any real problems over a traditional crafting system. It is possible to cover up some of these issues by just throwing tons of product at players, but I don’t understand why you start off with a system that feels like strictly worse crafting. The most obvious solution is to just let players throw unwanted Rares and Mythics into the Vault. Yes, it is still a pseudo-crafting system possibly with an random component as the output, but that is not so bad. That one change would make a major difference in most of my criticisms of the Vault.

If you liked this article and are not familiar with my work, I would encourage you to check out some of my other articles. One relevant article is the piece I wrote comparing the economies of several digital card games. You can also read this piece on variance in card games, or my starter guide for Eternal. I also have a podcast that focuses on Eternal, where I interviewed Patrick Chapin who is one one of the developers of Eternal, and Amaz who has played a lot of Eternal Draft. You can also get involved in the Reddit thread and share your thoughts!

Love,

Neon